Happiness in times of crisis

The coronavirus crisis is having a huge impact on our daily lives and on the economy. What can we do then to stay happy? Economist Paul Smeets, Professor of Philanthropy & Sustainable Finance and UM's youngest professor, is conducting research into feelings of happiness in relation to prosperity. Because of this, he has also become known as the Happiness Professor. “Many people are experiencing what is more important now than ever—having the time to be connected to one another.”

Sustainable happiness

Earlier research by Smeets shows that people become happier from the intentional use of time than from material things. “Making time for activities brings happiness”, says Smeets. “At the most, buying things will only make you slightly happier for a short period of time. For a more sustainable feeling of happiness, it’s better for you to go to the gym or help someone else.”


Being close, with distance​

“This crisis is forcing us to change the way we live our everyday lives. We now spend our money mainly on basic necessities—food, drinks and toilet paper. New clothes have become less important.  Now that we are limited in our freedom of movement, you can see everyone creatively looking for social activities that fall within the measures of the RIVM. We are organising virtual birthday parties, doing grocery shopping for our neighbour and coming up with bear walks for children. We want to be there for and with others. The number of people offering help through all kinds of social initiatives is currently greater than the number of people asking for help. That’s nice to see.”


Economy in balance

“As an economist, I see special things happening. The financial market is completely out of control, people are reacting with panic, so you see great swings up and down in the stock market. Commissioned by a major Dutch bank, I'm researching the financial choices that Dutch people are making during this crisis. Are people going to sell their shares en masse or are they going to remain patient? And who is going to buy shares right now? For the general feeling of happiness, however, it is important that a country’s economy is in balance, that prosperity is distributed as fairly as possible. The power of the rich is enormous in that respect. Unfortunately, rich people in general, especially in America, find income inequality more acceptable than non-rich people. Poorer Americans are supposed to take care of themselves, even in adversity.”


Happy countries

“Research shows that the happiest people live in the countries where income inequality is at its lowest and healthcare is provided in the best way—such as in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. In America, you see that healthcare is not well-provided and that the income differences are too great. This economic inequality is still growing. Many Americans are very unhappy because of all these uncertainties. It’s more a question of trying to survive in the chaos. That’s tough. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. have died in the last decade after turning to drugs because of their misery.”



“The crisis is causing major problems for us, too. The people working in healthcare are under a lot of stress; we have to get used to a 1.5-metre society; entrepreneurs are having a really hard time. But our government understands this, takes decisive action, and goes to great lengths in implementing all kinds of social and financial measures. So, it could have been much worse. Ultimately, I’m happy to live in the Netherlands. Many people don’t realise how good we have it here. Our students, with their modest incomes, are among the 10% richest people in the world! That means they can make time for social projects and, fortunately, you can also see that happening!”


A new, more social time

“When the crisis measures are lifted, I’m afraid that we will quickly go back to the daily grind. But I hope that the focus we now have on maintaining a good connection with each other—online or in person—will remain, that we will continue to more intentionally make time for this. For example, I have noticed that online meetings are very efficient; they require more concentration, which is why the meetings are shorter than in-person meetings. If we are able to hold on to some of this, we will have time to spare later. This could reduce the much-discussed academic workload. And we can spend the time that’s freed up on shopping for a lonely neighbour and other social activities. And in the end, we will be happier!”

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